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Chain Gang, Karma and Briar Roots
You might say I was a troubled teen-ager and you certainly wouldn’t be the first one to do that. High school was wasting my time, the Vietnam War was raging and race riots were routine.
I got up in the middle of English class and said, “I just can’t do this anymore.” After leaving home, I got nabbed by the cops and after a so-called ‘trial’ was handed over to the juvenile authorities. After a prolonged stay at the Reception and Diagnostic Center (where kids get processed and prepared to be State Property), I couldn’t do that anymore, either. I busted out and never looked back.
Making my way to South Carolina, I got a job with a carnival, first running the Tilt-a-Whirl, Scrambler, then got a coveted position on the Wild Mouse, a portable roller-coaster. In between, I sat in the Bozo tank where people would try to throw balls and dunk me in the water. I had a microphone, and part of the fun was talking an annoying line of stuff to make patrons so mad that they couldn’t throw the ball straight. “Yo Mama wears combat boots!” ‘Last night your sister wanted more!” “You throw like a girl!” I was so good at that part that an armed guard would come to escort me away when my shift was done.
Here’s where my book gets its name. I had a 1956 Chevrolet with three good tires and a tank of gas. The show was leaving town and I was to go with them. Problem was, the car needed a new generator. I had almost enough money to buy it, but was short by $6.25.
I went to the local wishing well next to the Piggly Wiggly Store and scooped up that amount in quarters. Wouldn’t you know I would get nabbed, caught red-handed.
The wishing well was to benefit the Lion’s Club. I would later learn that the Judge was a member. First I was thrown in jail at North Myrtle Beach, then transferred to the Nixon’s Crossroads Jail, a primitive facility with no screens on the edge of a swamp. After a week or two there, I was transferred to Conway, South Carolina to await trial. I was appointed a lame and ineffective attorney who let my trial date come and go through three cycles at the circuit court.
It was hot as hell in that jail. Finally I went to trial, my case was called and I was convicted. I was sentenced to six months hard labor for ‘housebreaking’ because that was as close a charge that they could come up with. South Carolina had no statute regarding wishing wells.
Without delay I was taken to the Horry County Chain Gang. That’s what the sign said, and that’s what it certainly was. Of course I was scared, and the first convict I met was Freddie Sessions. He was the typical looking convict with a crew cut and square jaw. I thought this guy would be trouble. Then he started to talk. He was an absolute hoot! Comical and engaging, he immediately put my fears to rest and showed me to my quarters, primitive, but clean. The whole place was both of those things and oddly civilized. The blacks and whites had separate barracks. We did not sleep under the same roof or eat at the dining hall at the same time. So there was none of the racial tension, violence, etc. that one might expect. They even allowed inmates to keep their pocket knife, lighter, other things that would be contraband today. That’s because of segregation. Now, it was not about racism or anything like that. It was about not mixing cultures. All parties involved wanted it that way.
We were fed well with great home cooking and treated with respect as long as we behaved. It wasn’t awful. But we did work hard.
Freddie was a piece of work to say the least. The Chain Gang was his home, largely by choice. He was a talented diesel mechanic and worked on the mechanized road equipment. He was trusted, respected, fed well and had a clean dry place to sleep. But he was a bit of a drunk and would get thrown back to the Gang for thirty days at a time. When released, he would go up to “Mossy Ridge” get drunk, make trouble in town and get arrested again so he could get back to his ‘home’. He actually did thirteen thirty day sentences in a year! That’s because when sentenced, a well behaved convict only has to do 23 days’ time per month sentenced. The judge finally gave him life in prison for drunk in public to save everybody the trouble. To be clear, he could get released anytime he wanted.
Captain Lonny was a mean old *******. He carried a .32 pistol and was an expert with it, I was told. If someone was to run, he would simply shoot them in the butt and haul them in. His favorite method of intimidation was to chamber a round in his shotgun with that distinctive sound and bark some command. Now, if an inmate was to step in a bee’s nest or a fire-ant hill and have to run, he would do so with hands raised and call, “Captain Lonnie, Captain Lonnie!” Then he wouldn’t’ get shot. Today when and if I run, I still have that uncontrollable urge to raise my hands.
We worked in swamps, on the side of the road, and sometimes on private property. Captain Lonnie would get paid for our work on private jobs, of course. For our co-operation with this, besides the fact that he had a shotgun, on Fridays he would take us to the ‘fish camp’. This is a place with a pond and a little shack with a cook. We would catch fish, take it to the shack and the old woman would prepare it, serving it with cole slaw and hush-puppies.
Imagine the visual image of a bunch of convicts in stripped suits and leg irons sitting around a pond fishing, with smoke drifting out of the shack in the background. It conjures something that Norman Rockwell would illustrate.
The chain gang had a little commissary with the things that prisoners can purchase. Two cans of Prince Albert Tobacco were issued each week with rolling papers so most everybody did not have to buy cigarettes. I don’t smoke, so I used mine as currency. To make extra money, while out on the work sites, I found that I could dig up and pocket briar roots, take them back to the barracks and carve them into some really fine smoking pipes. Quickly the word got out that my pipes were nice to look at and functioned well.
One afternoon, I dug up the mother of all roots. This would make the finest pipe ever. No sooner had I put it in my pocket, Captain Lonnie bellowed, “You digging up roots again, boy?”, chambering a round in his shotgun for added effect. “Yes Sir, Captain Lonnie”, I replied. He took it from me and ordered me back to work.
A couple of days later it was lunchtime. We were all sitting around eating the bag lunch provided. Captain Lonnie came strolling by and dropped that root in my lap, never breaking stride and walked away. He had done a beautiful job of carving it himself! I was astonished and for that one fleeting moment saw the other side of this harsh taskmaster.
On Sundays, we didn’t work and the camp was open. Inmates could move freely about, blacks and whites could visit the other barracks to play cards, trade reading material or just hang out. While awaiting trial, a visitor had brought me a harmonica. It was a standard Hohner Marine Band model with ten holes. I had experimented with it and could play a little.
 

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Chain Gang, Karma and Briar Roots, continued

One Sunday when the camp was open I heard the strangest music coming from the black’s barracks. I walked over there and found that they had pieced together every imaginable woodwind instrument that could be made from bamboo, drums made from Cypress knees and animal skins, jugs, rub boards, and two pieces of baling wire affixed to the side of the building, with frets and tuning spools.
I showed up and produced my harmonica……..and was welcomed to play. It didn’t go well at first because I just didn’t ‘get it.’
An old black man took me aside to show me how the instrument is really played. He first said, “Sonny, white boys can play the blues, but they gotta work awful hard at it.”
I rejoined the band and picked it up immediately. Now bear in mind that this ten hole instrument is designed to blow out and make ten notes. Suck in and get another, totaling twenty. But ‘if you hold your mouth right’ there are seventeen more notes totaling thirty seven. These are the ‘blue’ notes on which the “blues” are based. This method of playing is also what makes the difference between a harmonica and a ‘harp’. It’s the musical style that determines what one calls it. Just like the difference between a violin and a fiddle.
So I did my time, learned how to really work, made some friends, heard many stories, got safe cracking lessons, and the time went by.
Trouble did visit once during my stay. Out on the road one day while working an old guy remarked, “I’d rather hear you fart than to hear a pretty girl sing”. Now it was unusual to have this kind of confrontation, almost unheard of. But I thought things might get worse if I did not respond. I raised my bush axe and started toward him……….then heard Captain Lonnie’s’ signature sound of chambering another round in his shotgun. “Get in the truck, boy”, he said. Of course, I did. I spent the next three days in the ‘hole’. Now on a South Carolina chain gang in that era, the ‘hole’ was just that, a hole in a dirt berm with a wooden door and a tiny peep hole for ventilation.
I was given two buckets a day. One to eat out of and the other to not eat out of. You get the picture. Now, when a fellow has three days to do nothing and contemplate the relationship of those two buckets, a few basic concepts start to gel, and then take hold. You don’t **** where you eat. A simple concept, but some never get it. I got it. To extrapolate this you might consider how unwise it is to mess around with someone with whom you work. Many similar comparisons can be drawn.
Another thing I learned was that if I can’t be respected, to be feared is a good alternative in some circumstances. The black boys I played music with started calling me “Whacko”. They had a nickname for everybody, and this one caught on quickly. This was not the first time my sanity was questioned in my life, and would not be the last. But I didn’t have any more problems with perverts.




I was instructed one morning to put on my street clothes and head to the gate. But it was two weeks before my release date, even with time for good behavior factored in. I did not question it, and headed to the gate. After signing some papers and being given ten dollars, the gate opened to freedom. What a great feeling that was………..A life ahead with self-determination again.
I was about twenty yards out of the gate when I heard that sound of a shotgun chambering a round, and Captain Lonny said, “Hold it right there, boy.”
Rats! My heart sank. I was not to be free after all, I thought. He then said, “Them’s the Counties’ boots.” I took them off and ran barefooted out of Horry County, even though it was a cold February morning.

Oh, don’t let me forget Karma. Remember the wishing well that would benefit the Lion’s Club? They used the money to fund projects for the Blind. MY daughter, Chance was born twelve years later blind at birth.
You just can’t make up this stuff.

Ryland
 

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Im still trying to figure out the bucket thing.....did you not use the buckets or did you not eat the food?

Damnit Ryland, Id accuse you of taking a page right out of Cool Hand Luke...but as you keep saying.......you cant make this stuff up.
 

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I'm not sure whether Cool Hand Luke meant to say; "....To extrapolate this you might consider how unwise it is to mess around with someone with whom you work...." or not, but don't you remember why "Going Postal" became a common phrase!" Don't mess with folks who know you, where you live, work and breathe.

Carry On!
Gary
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